Kiwi crosscode star Honey Hireme-Smiler helps wife through heartbreaking battle with terminal cancer

As one of the most intimidating onfield combatants in NZ rugby and league history, crosscode international Honey Hireme-Smiler prides herself on giving no quarter between the white chalk.

Whether for the Black Ferns, Kiwi Ferns, or Black Ferns Sevens jersey, Hireme-Smiler was a jaw-dropping package of terrifying physical force and relentless competitiveness during her unprecedented 18-year career.

During one astonishing stretch in 2013, Hireme-Smiler led the Black Ferns Sevens to victory in the Sevens World Cup at Moscow, then flew directly to Leeds to captain the Kiwi Ferns to the final of the Rugby League World Cup, where she was named Player of the Tournament. 

A few months later, she debuted for the Black Ferns at the Rugby World Cup, named in the tournament XV, despite a disappointing team campaign.

Affectionately known as 'Honey Bill' - a nod to famous Kiwi crosscode international Sonny Bill Williams - Hireme-Smiler was, in every sense, a genuine sporting anomaly and never one to shy in the face of adversity.

But when she hung up her boots for good back in 2020, she never realised her biggest challenge would come outside those lines she'd dedicated her life to.

After feeling unwell for a couple of days, Hireme-Smiler's wife of two years and partner of 10, Rochelle Smiler, visited her doctor for routine blood tests, which revealed what was initially diagnosed as gallstones.

Last December, an ensuing CT scan at Waikato Hospital returned a much more sinister diagnosis.

"When they bring a whole lot of doctors into one room, you know that it's not going to be good news," Hireme-Smiler recalls.

Rochelle had a rare and lethal form of cancer known as cholangiocarcinoma, also known as CCA.

Affecting the bile duct, 75 percent of patients diagnosed with CCA are already at stage four, when it's inoperable and untreatable. Rochelle was part of that majority. 

The cancer had already spread to three different areas of her body - ovaries, lungs and liver - and with no available treatment, doctors recommended Rochelle go straight into palliative care. They gave her a life expectancy of less than 12 months.

"It was devastating for us, to say the least," says Hireme-Smiler, 40. "She's 39 [years old], it just wasn't what we expected. 

"It hit us like a freight train, it all feels surreal."

Hireme-Smiler running riot for the Black ferns against England in 2016.
Hireme-Smiler running riot for the Black ferns against England in 2016. Photo credit: Photosport

That day flipped several lives upside down, turning everyday existence as they knew it on its head.

The pair have three children from previous relationships - Honey's son Karasharn, 17, and Rochelle's Kieran,19, and Tyrone, 21.

"It broke our hearts to have to tell them that, and then obviously ring around to our families and let them know what's going on."

Hireme-Smiler met Rochelle while playing club rugby in Hamilton 10 years ago. They've been almost inseparable since, their strong onfield bond translating off it.

The three-time NZ Rugby League Player of the Year thought she knew almost everything there was to know about her wife, until cancer came along and revealed another layer of inner fortitude, to the point where Rochelle has become the primary pillar of support for their whānau.

"I think my wife is the strongest woman that I know," says Hireme-Smiler. "She's dealt with it with such strength and she's accepted what's happening with her, but she's got a real motivation and drive to fight, and that's what it is about. 

"You could read the stats, and you could Google it and think, 'Oh, well, my days are done', but you know, she doesn't accept that at all."

"The way she's carrying herself is actually holding the rest of us up. My wife has just blown me away with the strength that she's shown through this challenge."

Rochelle's diagnosis comes just three years after Hireme-Smiler lost mother Caryn to stomach cancer at just 62 years old. She and Rochelle fast-tracked their 2019 wedding to ensure Caryn could attend, and she passed away soon after.

Rochelle's own mother was also a victim of cancer, dying of melanoma in 2011.

Determined to help others avoid a similar fate, Honey - who now works for the Halberg Trust and as a Sky Sports broadcaster - is determined to use her platform to help spread awareness of CCA and encourage early detection of symptoms, which include jaundice of the skin and eyes, loss of appetite and weight, and low energy levels.

February is worldwide Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness Month. Last weekend, Auckland's SkyTower was lit up green in support of the cause, while a number of walks are planned to help promote recognition.

Rochelle is one of just 12 CCA patients in New Zealand. Two of them are among the two percent worldwide who are operable and have been an enormous source of support, all part of a small, but steadfast online support community Hireme-Smiler is heavily involved with.

"You hear the words and you just think it will never be me. I never thought I'd be in this position two years ago, when I'm running around on the rugby league field. 

"Now two of the closest females in my life have suffered from cancer. The amount of support and love that we've received from family, friends and strangers, to be honest, has just been really amazing, so, we really want to champion this cause and help raise awareness for this cancer." 

Honey Hireme-Smiler with wife Rochelle.
Honey Hireme-Smiler with wife Rochelle. Photo credit: Instagram/@honeyhireme1

COVID-19 has further complicated their situation. Rochelle's highly compromised immune system means she's extremely vulnerable to the virus, which has kept her housebound.

Private healthcare has been the pair's saving grace. Had they been forced to wait for the Waikato public healthcare system, which is under enormous strain due to the pandemic, Rochelle still wouldn't have undergone the chemotherapy treatment she's already completed.

That treatment hasn't been all plain sailing. Rochelle had to undergo several small operations for related issues, including a liver blockage.

Only between 8-10 percent of CCA patients survive more than five years, but despite those long odds, Hireme-Smiler uses the resolve forged through her 18 years of elite sport to cling to whatever hope remains.

"I think it comes from that sports mentality of resilience, and it's definitely driven and opened me up to just having a lot more faith and hope for a miracle.  

"Why can't my wife be part of that [8-10 percent]? 

The two have explored alternative treatment options and been encouraged by the progress of some American-based genetic testing, which has extended the life expectancy of CCA sufferers.

One silver lining to such an earth-shattering experience is the unifying effect it's had on the pair and their family. While their sons are "struggling a bit" and have been forced to mature rapidly, Hireme-Smiler says everyone has rallied behind Rochelle to ensure they make the most of whatever time they may have left together.

Of course, the dark days are inevitable, but Hireme-Smiler has tried to summon all the courage she once carried with her onto the field, and apply it to making every day she has left with her beloved wife and family count.

"In order for her to be strong, we need to be strong. She definitely has her tough days, and it's really hard to see her suffer and to see her fatigued, and not be able to do the things that we would normally do.

"But there's that motto of, every day, we try to live our best life. It sounds cheesy, but it's literally the truth."

For more information on Cholangiocarcinoma cancer, please check its foundation website here or for support, go to Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness New Zealand.